Yemen: The Other Civil Wars


September 2, 2019: Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) are the core of the Arab Coalition supporting the Yemen government against the Iran backed Shia rebels from the north. But disagreements between the UAE and Saudi Arabia over how to handle the war led to the UAE withdrawing most of its ground troops from Yemen earlier this year. The Saudis are mainly concerned about eliminating an Iranian ally operating on the southwestern border of Saudi Arabia and posing a threat to maritime traffic in the Red Sea. This is also of major concern for Egypt, which depends on Suez Canal transit fees for a major portion of its foreign currency income. Persian Gulf oil states depend on the Suez Canal to ship oil to Europe and receive exports from Europe. Since the Coalition arrived in 2015 the Saudis have concentrated on air operations and defending their southern border and the Red Sea. The UAE concentrated on southern Yemen, the Islamic terrorist threat there and rebuilding the Yemen armed forces. The UAE feels most of its work is done and it does face an increasingly aggressive Iran in the Persian Gulf.

The Saudis accuse the UAE of being more interesting in supporting another partition of Yemen as a more effective solution to the perpetual Yemeni crises. According to the Saudis the UAE supports Sunni separatist tribes in the south who want nothing to do with Shia dominated northern Yemen. The Saudis believe that the UAE expects to be allowed to invest in new ports and other facilities in southern Yemen after the war. This is probably true, but investing in new or upgraded port facilities throughout the region is a major business activity for the UAE. Perhaps that provides the UAE with a different view of the mess in Yemen and a perpetual source of friction with Saudi Arabia.

Back in May, the Yemeni government accused the UAE of supporting southern separatists and continuing to expand its military presence and influence in the Yemeni Socotra Islands. The main island is in the Gulf of Aden, 380 kilometers south of Yemen and 240 kilometers from the northeast tip of Somalia. The population is 60,000 and the island (and a few much smaller ones) lies within busy shipping lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. Yemen accuses the UAE of seeking to support Socotra separatists (which are currently few in number) to demand more economic links with and investment from the UAE. Saudi Arabia sides with Yemen on this issue. In early 2018 the UAE withdrew its troops from Socotra after having been there for two weeks. This brief “occupation” angered many Yemenis who felt the UAE was trying to annex Socotra. Saudi Arabia stepped in and agreed to take over the economic development program for Socotra which the Yemeni government saw the UAE turning into an effort to make Socotra economically and politically dependent on the UAE. The UAE has always been more aggressive in this regard while the Saudis have not.

The possibility of a split has returned because the UAE has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of the STC (South Transitional Council) as a means of maintaining peace and order down there. This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader, is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi the elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi capital. This is for Hadi’s safety given the number of assassinations going on in Aden (where the Hadi government officially moved to in 2015). The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels. The STC armed forces consist of about 12,000 men from the separatist militias trained by the UAE and referred to as the SBF (Security Belt Forces).

While most adult males in Yemen are armed, because it’s an ancient tradition, few of those armed men are trained soldiers or even members of some kind of organized combat unit. What does exist is a lot of local tribal leaders who can quickly organize a few dozen to a few hundred armed men to oppose someone they fear or simply don’t like. This means, and has always meant, that Yemen never had sufficient security forces (reliable soldiers or police) to impose order if large segments of the population disagreed with the central government. This has long been a problem with the Shia tribes of the north and many of the Sunni tribes in the south and southeast. Since 2011 both these groups have been very unhappy and since early 2017 the separatist Sunni tribes in the south have become more hostile to the government and more willing to tolerate the presence of Islamic terrorists, especially if these groups contain some locals and know how to behave themselves. The Saudis and UAE have trained and armed about 90,000 men since 2015. Most of these gunmen belong to tribal militias throughout the country. The northern Sunni tribal militias favor a united Yemen while the southern Sunni tribes prefer a partition of Yemen. While the Shia are a minority nationwide, in the north they are nearly half the population. There are far fewer Shia in the separatist south.

One force in Aden that is loyal to the Yemen government and Saudi Arabia is the Islah (an Islamist Party in the south) militia. Islah has worked with the STC against the Shia rebels as well as the Islamic terrorists in the south. These are mainly AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Both these terrorist groups are still around but largely keeping their heads down in rural hideouts. Most of these are in central Yemen ( Baida province) and to the east. Anywhere an Islamic terrorist can find a hospitable tribe, they can usually arrange refuge . AQAP has few active members left in Yemen and the only remaining local support is from some separatist Sunni tribes in the south and east. Some of these Islamic terrorist tolerant tribes also support the STC. This can be awkward at times but is accepted down south as “the way things are done.” In the south (Shabwa province) Yemeni special operation troops have been finding and raiding the few remaining rural AQAP hideouts there. Since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces.

Then there is the Islah militia in Aden. Because Islah is Islamic and loyal to Saudi Arabia (and a united Yemen), there has always been friction with the STC; they  are rivals and suspicious of each other. To further complicate matter Saudi Arabia tolerates Islah, which the UAE doesn’t trust. The Islah militia is considered part of the Yemeni government Aden garrison, a force meant to ensure that Islamic terrorists and southern separatists do not become a threat to government control of den. The current fighting in the south, mainly around Aden, is about the STC demanding that Islah get out of Aden because of trust issues. While this may seem odd, it’s quite common in Yemen.

Everyone can agree that the conflict in Yemen has been a war with no winners and no “good guys.” The basic problem is that too many Yemenis don’t want to be Yemenis. The country was a patchwork of independent tribes and cities when the English East India Company took control of some Yemeni ports in the 1830s and 40s to support ships going from Britain to India. The Ottoman Turks still controlled most of northern Yemen until 1918 (when the Ottoman Empire collapsed). Britain took over from the Ottomans and established the borders of modern Yemen. But Yemen was still not a unified country. When the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again.

This came back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa) region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city-states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.) Yemen is still all about the tribes. The national government is a bunch of guys who deal with foreigners and try to maintain peace among the tribes. Controlling the national government is a source of much wealth, as officials can steal part of the foreign aid and taxes (mostly on imports or royalties from oil).

This lack of nationalism means a lack of cooperation or willingness to act in the public interest. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crises is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of overpopulation, water shortages and Khat (a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal.) There is little willingness to cooperate. Feuding, fighting and blaming others for the mess are the preferred methods for dealing with the problems. Before oil was discovered in Arabia nearly a century ago Yemen had long been the most populous, powerful and populous part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with regular rains (thanks to the annual monsoon). Most of the oil deposits were at the north end of the Persian Gulf and Yemen lost out there. Yemenis had long despised the less affluent Arabians to the north, but since oil arrived the Yemenis have become despised and they did not take it well. Resentment, envy and a sense of entitlement have combined with the lack of unity to produce Yemen that is a nation in name only. Few others in the region have much sympathy for the Yemenis who are seen as the main cause of their own problems and the main obstacle to solving them. Since that is all you have to work with it is no wonder that Yemen came to be such a perennial disaster area.

Stubborn Saudis

The Saudis will carry on with efforts to defeat the Shia rebels despite UN pressure to make a peace deal the Shia rebels would currently accept. Such a deal would restore the Shia autonomy in the north and make it possible for Iran to continue supplying the Shia tribes with weapons that can be used to attack Saudi Arabia. To the Saudis that is unacceptable, given the fact that the Iranians are openly calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government, and Iran taking over as the “protector of the two Most Holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina”. Most Moslems do not want Iran in charge of Mecca and Medina. The Iranians are Shia Moslems and Shia comprise only about ten percent of all Moslems. The Saudis are largely Sunni, a version of Islam about 80 percent of Moslems belong to. Moreover, the Iranians are not Arabs. Rather the Iranians are Indo-European and for many Moslems that is a big deal because Islam was founded by Arabs and the Moslem scriptures (the Koran) are written in Arabic. The Saudis will go to great lengths to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iran base area. Meanwhile, the Iranians have convinced many of the Shia Yemenis that getting their autonomy back should be non-negotiable because without that autonomy the Yemeni Shia will be vulnerable to retaliation from all the other Yemeni groups the Shia rebels have harmed during the years of civil war.

September 1, 2019: South of the capital Sanaa (in Dhamar province), a Saudi airstrike hit a compound being used by the Shia rebels to store UAVs and other weapons. The rebels were also using toe compound as a prison and the airstrike killed over a hundred people, most of them prisoners. The Shia rebels regularly store weapons and military equipment in populated areas. Shia rebel personnel also live in those areas, believing the use of civilians as human shields will deter airstrikes. That is less effective in the Middle East and many other parts of the world where the local ROE (rules of engagement) do not recognize the presence of civilians as protection from an airstrike.

August 31, 2019: Saudi Arabia and the UAE called on the Yemeni government and southern separatist to stop fighting and negotiate a settlement of their differences.

August 30, 2019: In the south (Aden), an ISIL suicide bomber killed three soldiers at a checkpoint. Elsewhere in the city an AQAP suicide bomber on a motorcycle hit a vehicle in an STC convoy and wounded five bodyguards of the SBF commander, who was apparently the target of an assassination attempt.

August 29, 2019: The Yemeni government has withdrawn its forces from Aden after the city was attacked by UAE-backed southern separatists. It appears that a second civil war is developing in Yemen. The UAE has trained and armed many of the tribal militias in the south since 2015 as part of the effort to provide the Yemeni government with more effective forces for the fight the Shia rebels. However, most of the southern tribes are also interested in partitioning Yemen again and the Saudi backed Yemeni government accuses the UAE of backing the rebellious southern tribesmen who took over Aden. To make matters worse the UAE carried out airstrikes against Yemeni government forces that tried to defend Aden and nearby (to the east) Abyan provincial capital of Zinjibar. This smaller port had been controlled by AQAP for a while after 2015 but government forces managed to drive the Islamic terrorists into the countryside north of the city. Todays’ UAE airstrikes left over a hundred dead, most of them civilians.

August 28, 2019: In southwest Saudi Arabia (Asir province), a Shia rebel cruise missile was used for an attack on the Abha airport The Saudis reported some damage but no casualties. Back in June, there was a similar attack on this airport that wounded 26 people in the terminal building and exploded while penetrating the terminal roof. The Saudis accuse Iran of continuing to supply the Shia rebels with these weapons.

August 27, 2019: In the north (outside the capital Sanaa), Saudi warplanes shot down two explosives equipped UAVs the Shia rebels had launched towards Saudi Arabia. The Saudis seek to detect and destroy these UAVs before they reach the Saudi border.

August 25, 2019: In Saudi Arabia UN, UAE and Saudi officials met to discuss how to improve the distribution of aid to needy Yemenis. In particular, the Saudis and UAE were seeking ways to prevent the Shia rebels from stealing or blocking aid to Yemenis who desperately needed it. While the Shia rebels have lost control of the Red Sea port of Hodeida, through which most aid for the Shia rebel-controlled north arrives, the rebels had relied more on demanding bribes before allowing aid to move or be distributed. The rebels are suffering a growing financial crisis, in part because they have lost control of Hodeida, and are desperately seeking other sources of income. In the rebels, occupied capital (Sanaa) the rebels recently closed eight hospitals that had refused to pay huge bribes to continue operating. The rebels insist the hospitals were closed because of unsatisfactory conditions but it’s an open secret the hospitals refused to pay the huge bribes demanded. If that were done the hospitals would have been forced to boost their own fees beyond what many Yemenis can pay. The Saudis are also demanding that the UN make public the results of several investigations into corruption involving aid to Yemen. Apparently the UN is reluctant to release the reports because it would embarrass many aid groups.

August 24, 2019: In the north (outside the capital Sanaa), Saudi warplanes shot down two explosives equipped UAVs the Shia rebels had launched towards Saudi Arabia. The rebels said these UAVs were aimed at two airports in southwest Saudi Arabia.

An Israeli airstrike outside of Damascus Syria hit an Iranian base that was described as preparing Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives that were going to be used for an attack on Israel. It was believed that Iran had resorted to this tactic because Iran was desperate for a win against Israel, which was continuing to attack Iranian targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq with impunity and without suffering any losses. Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen had used the explosives equipped UAVs for attacks on Saudi Arabia, with some success. These UAVs do less damage than ballistic missiles but are more difficult to detect and intercept. The Saudis have adapted but one of the many UAVs launched for each attack can still get through from time to time. Israel has detected and shot down these UAVs, launched by Hezbollah from Lebanon. But the small, low flying UAVs remain difficult to detect and intercept so the Israelis, like the Saudis, find it easier to bomb the bases the UAVs operate from.

August 23, 2019: In the south (Shabwa province), SBF forces declared a ceasefire after two days of fighting with government forces over control of key roads providing access to Yemen’s few oilfields.

August 22, 2019: In the north (outside the capital Sanaa), Saudi warplanes shot down two explosives equipped UAVs the Shia rebels had launched towards Saudi Arabia.

August 20, 2019: In the south (Abyan province), SBF forces seized two bases outside the port city of Zinjibar, which is east of Aden. About a thousand Yemeni government troops withdrew from the bases after brief fighting that left four dead and 24 wounded.

In the north (Sanaa), an Iranian surface-to-air missile was used to shoot down an American MQ-9 UAV flying a surveillance mission over the Shia rebel-held capital. The Shia rebels apparently used a Russian SA-6 missile that was captured from the Yemeni military. Actually, many Yemeni Army units joined the Shia rebels after 2014, including those that controlled SCUD ballistic missiles and the SA-6 air defense missiles. Iran supplied technical help and spare parts to keep some of the SA-6 systems operational, especially those around the rebel-held capital. These missiles have been used to shoot down similar Chinese UAVs used by the Arab Coalition.

August 17, 2019: The Shia rebels announced the appointment of an ambassador to Iran. This is a propaganda move meant to enrage the Arab Gulf states. Iran accepted the rebel ambassador. The Shia rebels already have an ambassador to the Assad government in Syria.

August 11, 2019: In the south (Aden), Saudi warplanes attacked SBF forces who had taken over government bases and administrative buildings.

August 10, 2019: In the south (Aden), SBF militias have taken control of portions of the port city and several key military bases and the presidential palace. The STC refuses to stop fighting until the government orders Islah militias out of Aden. The fighting has been going on since August 1st and has left at least 40 dead and over 250 wounded. The STC forces basically control Aden but government forces remain in the city.


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